Thursday, September 3, 2009

MetLife's Decisive Leaders

New AIG CEO Robert Benmosche sure is making his leadership presence felt, even if it may veer a bit into, in his own words, "too aggressive" territory, as per today's piece in the Wall Street Journal. In its earlier coverage of Benmosche's appointment in August to be AIG's chief, the WSJ wrote that he will be "the most decisive, direct and tough leader to run the battered insurer" since Hank Greenberg's reign.

Benmosche had been head of MetLife Inc. from 1998 to 2006. This is not the first "decisive, direct and tough" leader that MetLife has turned out.

I'm thinking of Richard Shinn (pictured), who I met in 1987 when he did the keynote for a CEO dinner that Directors & Boards held at the Harvard Club in New York. Dick Shinn had been with then-named Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. for 44 years. He retired as chairman and CEO in 1983, and at the time of his speech he was still keeping his hand in as executive vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange.

We published his keynoter in early 1988, titled "Forces That Are Reshaping the Board." Talk about a page out of the history books. Here are two of those forces he spotlighted to both the Harvard Club CEO audience and then to the audience reading Directors & Boards:

"There are two new governance developments that have come to light. One which is a natural result of the growing demands on, and importance of, directors is the search for procedures to provide a continuing evaluation of a director's performance and provide for an orderly turnover. The leadership in this approach is coming more from nonprofit organizations, and perhaps we can learn from their experience.

"The second emerging concept is the need to keep board members sufficiently informed of the corporation's current and looming problems."

Whoa! Here we had a top corporate statesman of his day identifying in the hallowed halls of the Harvard Club "emerging concepts" that would eventually lead to one of his MetLife CEO successors taking on the job of rescuing AIG, one of the top corporations of its day, from the very problems that Shinn surfaced two decades earlier — a board of suspect performance and one not sufficiently informed of its company's current and looming problems.

The irony astounds. Let's hope the MetLife brand of decisive leadership as practiced by Robert Benmosche astounds as well.